Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Ring

People looking for insight into the mind of Alfred Hitchcock might well turn to The Ring, a 1927 boxing film that sports a rare solo writing credit from the director (although his wife, Alma Reville, also had a hand in it). Imagine their surprise when they discover the film is, at first blush, little more than an anti-climactic melodrama, largely devoid of suspense or the darker passions that course through his strongest work. Talk of circles and rings aside, the film actually offers little more than a quaint triangle. A promising boxer dubbed One-round Jack comes under the wing of heavyweight champ Bob Corby, who flirts with the youngster’s wife in-between sparring rounds. The girl, not even afforded the distinction of a name, is bandied about as a prize between the two men—a fact so explicit that the film even assigns her a monetary value (she’s worth more than two quid, at least).

The tension between the two men is played as pissing match, complete with all the expected warning signs of machismo run rampant. The most obvious is the armband Bob gifts to the girl, who hides it from her husband-to-be in embarrassment (the wedding ring Jack gives her is notably dwarfed by the shiny bauble). Every scene unfolds at an unhurried pace, but the confidence of the film—particularly after the muddled, self-conscious efforts of Easy Virtue and Downhill—is striking. The outcome of the final fight is never in doubt (love rallies for the knockout in the fourth round), but the sequence itself is a perfect showpiece for Hitchcock’s talent. He skillfully cuts between the two small figures in long shot, framed in a patch of light amid the darkened rabble, and the disorienting close-ups of the two bodies slamming against each other. It’s visceral and yet poetic without ever feeling precious. Here, at last, is Hitchcock moving beyond merely throwing style at the screen to see what sticks. He’s in full command of his abilities, a prizefighter that knows how to pick his shots.

That confident mastery of the material invests the slight scenario with surprising nuance. While the film at time seems blandly obvious and even anti-dramatic, Hitchcock approaches it with a detached, quizzical attitude. It ceases to be an old-fashioned love triangle and becomes instead a more tricky study of paranoia. Significantly, Jack never really sees any sign of infidelity, only the flirty familiarity between his wife and his mentor. Out of doubt springs despair, and the affable Jack devolves into a sullen primitive, sometimes listless and other times snarling with so much rage he can knock over photographs at ten paces with a single glare. Yet the film is filled with faulty vision, calling into doubt everything we see. Key events are hidden behind crowds, while point of view shots are typically blurred, either punch drunk or liquor addled. Little actually happens in the film, and the crowd brays for more blood; the performers oblige for their (and our) benefit. Optimists might say the film ends with the girl renouncing her fickle love for whoever’s on top, learning empathy by admitting her love for Jack when he is at his lowest point. The more cynical might say that it doesn’t matter who wins or loses—all the audience wants is a fight.

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